In "Murphy's Romance," an enjoyable, if decidedly minor, love story, Emma (Sally Field), a horsewoman, moves to a small town with her son (Corey Haim). When she stops for a Coke at the local pharmacy, she's waited on by the proprietor, Murphy Jones (James Garner), an attractive older man with a disengaged manner. Murphy drives around in an antique automobile plastered with protest bumper stickers ("No Nukes," etc.), and when the town puts a parking meter in front of his store, he prefers paying a fine every day to tossing a quarter into it. This qualifies him as the town eccentric.
The advertisements for the film, showing Field in her best "Lasso me, you big wrangler" pose, are somewhat deceptive. Sparks don't exactly fly between the pair in this first meeting; the affair proceeds with the courtly clip-clop of a show horse, and appropriately enough, Murphy buys one, and boards it at Emma's ranch, which gives him a good excuse to come see her once in a while. He is, you see, a widower.
Just when you're wondering why Emma, too, is single, her ex-husband Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin), a California blond in the Redford mold, shows up -- to smooch, but mostly, to mooch. For the rest of "Murphy's Romance," ex-husband and eccentric vie for Emma's hand. But Bobby Jack is so obviously a cad that what's supposed to provide the story with its tension, doesn't. It's just a matter of marking time till she gives the bum the bum's rush.
Still, director Martin Ritt ("Hud," "Norma Rae") is comfortable in this milieu, and he keeps the tone low-key. You don't mind the lack of tension, since what the movie's about, in a sense, is avoiding tension -- both Murphy and Emma are trying to make peace with the mess life has left them. And writers Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch layer the movie with enough invention and wordplay that it goes by like a breeze.
Field can be dull looking lost and waif-like, but her motherliness is convincing -- it makes it plausible that she'd keep her husband around as long as she does. But the movie rides on Garner's aura of aggrieved common sense, his zonked middle-aged cool, the air of someone who's drawn a line for his life, and stays on it. Frank and Ravetch have written him dialogue full of gnomic utterances -- Murphy seems to have been programmed out of Poor Richard's Almanac -- but Garner's offhandedness makes them slide out of his mouth. He's the Teflon leading man.
The movie can get a little corny, and it could do without Ritt's crane shots of Small Town, USA -- the milieu's just slightly more of a paradise than it needs to be. Carole King's music, on the other hand, her usual La-Z-Boy for the ears, has nothing to do with the milieu at all. But it's nice to see a scaled-down movie that delves gracefully into the nature of mature love. At one point, Murphy delivers a punch line that involves the Crimean War; the movie doesn't stop to explain this for the teen-agers in the audience, and for a moment, you can hardly believe your ears.
Murphy's Romance, opening today at area theaters, is rated PG-13 and contains some profanity and sexual themes.